Racists Could Deliver Pennsylvania to Romney

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012 at 5:30 AM
Racists Could Deliver Pennsylvania to Romney by Jay Stevens
aconaway

We live in a post-racist world, right? Martin Luther King, Jr. marched for civil rights, segregation ended, laws against miscegenation were found unconstitutional. A black man was elected president. End of story. Right?

Well, no. And certainly not in our region of the country, as many are too well aware. Those that see it don’t need spreadsheets and statistics to confirm it, but for the rest there’s a new doctoral study by a Harvard student that shows a racist bias against President Barack Obama existed in the 2008 election. And western Pennsylvania was at the epicenter of that bias.

Economics student Seth Stephens-Davidowitz compared “Americans’ Google searches and their voting patterns,” he wrote in a New York Times blog. “If my results are correct, racial animus cost Mr. Obama many more votes than we may have realized.”

He used Google Insights, which allows you to see how often and where words are searched for in the United States, to see where the most “racially charged” areas of the country are. He did so by seeing which areas of the country most often searched for “nigger” -- the biggest proportion of returns for the term were for sites related to jokes about African-Americans. It’s a kind of correlation that works, because high numbers of Google searches for specific, charged terms usually correspond to regional demographics. The areas of the country with the highest number of searches for “God,” for example, occur in the Bible Belt.

“The conditions under which people use Google -- online, most likely alone, not participating in an official survey,” he wrote, “are ideal for capturing what they are really thinking and feeling.”

Once he pinpointed the areas that are racially charged, Stephens-Davidowitz compared that area’s 2008 presidential election results with its historical voting patterns, by seeing how many votes John Kerry received from area voters in 2004, “plus the average gain achieved by other 2008 Democratic Congressional candidates.” The gap between the number of votes expected for a generic white Democratic presidential candidate and the number Obama actually got is the number of votes Stephens-Davidowitz claims is lost because of race. (Note that Stephens-Davidowitz doesn’t deny some voted for Obama because of his race. But those that did -- self-identified as African-Americans, white liberals in exit polls -- are “habitual” Democratic voters.)

All in all, Stephens-Davidowitz estimates that “racial animus cost Mr. Obama 3 to 5percentage points of the popular vote.”
The most racially charged areas of the United States? First is West Virginia. Quickly followed by western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, and upstate New York. That is, home.

This isn’t much of a surprise, and race certainly has been a factor in the criticism of Obama’s presidency. Birtherism, cries of socialism, a weird focus on the president’s name, all are intended to make Obama look foreign, an outsider, a not-quite human other, the typical and insidious characteristics of a racist stereotype. The depiction of Obama on talk radio and on right-wing blogs is downright Chief-Wahoo-like in its cartoonishness.

But putting aside the moralizing for a moment -- being one of the most “racially charged” areas in the country is a dubious distinction, after all -- politically, that makes Pennsylvania an interesting case this election season. As Stephens-Davidowitz pointed out, Obama in 2008 rode on a wave of discontent with the Iraq war and collapsed economy and “was able to overcome the major obstacle of race in the United States. In 2012, the tail wind is gone; the obstacle likely remains.”
Pennsylvania may be a swing state this election, and the racial attitudes of western Pennsylvanians may be the reason why.


Jay Stevens can be contacted at jay@eriereader.com

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